I am an immigrant — a legal one. Over a period of 16 years I’ve gone through a succession of work visas, acquired a green card, married an American citizen (herself an immigrant) and passed the citizenship test, and in just 18 days will take the naturalisation oath, accompanied by my wife and our two American-born sons.
Since 2002, I and members of my family have entered the US umpteen times. Occasionally those crossings have been fraught. Once, before she got her green card, my British-born daughter was held up by immigration officers, who doubted her story that she was visiting her father. Those were agonising hours.
So I can understand the great wave of moral outrage that swept the United States and the world last week over the separation of asylum-seeking parents from their children at the US-Mexican border.
I can sympathise, too, with the parents, most of whom are from poor and violent Central American countries. My wife was once an asylum seeker from a poor and violent country. Her main motive for leaving Somalia for Holland (via Kenya and Germany) was to avoid an arranged marriage to a man she scarcely knew. Knowing that this was not a sufficient reason to be granted asylum, she emphasised the civil war in her country. In the same way, whatever their true motives, today’s asylum seekers from Honduras and Guatemala know to talk about the violence they are fleeing. This has been easier since 2009, when the courts started accepting that victims of domestic violence were entitled to asylum.
To those of you contentedly living in the country where you were born, I address a plea for empathy and also realism. A world without cross-border migration would be a poorer world. A trivial example: this Scotsman would never have met a Dutch-speaking Somali, and their two delightful sons would not exist. Nor would we have paid all those taxes to the US Treasury.
So the question is not whether to stop migration but how to manage it. From those of you who regard any regulation of immigration as somehow unjust — who want illegal immigrants to be treated the same as those who follow the rules — I plead for rationality. Wholly open borders are not a sane option for any country. And comparing today’s US government to the Nazis — who persecuted native-born German Jews by depriving them of their citizenship, then their rights, then their property and finally their lives — is preposterous.
No, Donald Trump is not Adolf Hitler, any more than Melania is Mussolini. Hitler was not the kind of leader who performed a U-turn after a week of bad press. Melania's coat, with its tone-deaf message (“I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U?”), was a green parka, not a brown shirt. Last week a friend suggested to me that the Trumps were engaged in “vice signalling”, the antithesis of virtue signalling — meaning that the policy of splitting up families was intended to gratify Trump’s populist base. I don’t buy that.
“We’re going to have strong — very strong — borders, but we are going to keep the families together,” Mr Trump said as he made his U-turn. “I didn’t like the sight or the feeling of families being separated.
“The dilemma is that if you’re weak . . . really pathetically weak, the country’s going to be overrun with millions of people,” the president added. “And if you’re strong, then you don’t have any heart. That’s a tough dilemma. Perhaps I’d rather be strong.”
No, I can’t imagine the Führer saying any of that either, especially not the “perhaps”. This debacle, the political equivalent of Argentina’s World Cup campaign, is the result of folly more than evil.
Last week Vanity Fair published the claim of an anonymous “outside White House adviser” that Trump’s speech-writer and aide Stephen Miller “actually enjoys seeing those pictures at the border. He’s a twisted guy . . . He’s Waffen-SS.” I think this quotation tells us more about the standards of journalism at Vanity Fair than about Mr Miller, who is both conservative and Jewish. No one in American politics sits down and says: “Guys, I’ve just had a really awesome idea. Let’s put toddlers in cages!”
The problem of what exactly to do with asylum-seeking families predates Miller by about two decades. It was in 1997 that a consent decree was issued, known as the Flores settlement, which prohibits the US immigration authorities from keeping children in detention — even with their parents — for more than 20 days. As it takes up to 50 times longer to adjudicate asylum applications, the authorities either let the families go (most disappear into the invisible army of the undocumented) or they try to separate parents from children. The last time the issue surfaced, in 2014, the Obama administration threw in the towel. Just 3% of the tens of thousands of children from Central America who entered America via Mexico that year were ultimately deported. The Trump administration didn’t want to be such a pushover. It was nevertheless pushed over — not by the asylum seekers, but by the media.
The German leader Trump more closely resembles is thus not Adolf Hitler but Angela Merkel. She too was forced to cave in by the media in 2015, when her statement to a sobbing Palestinian girl that Germany “just can’t manage” to accommodate refugees from the Middle East triggered a storm of emotion. You may recall what happened in the months after Merkel’s U-turn. As I pointed out last week, European and American leaders confront essentially the same problem. I just wish the media would express the same outrage about the camps in Turkey and north Africa where Europeans are trying to confine their would-be immigrants. I remain to be convinced that families trying to enter the US are treated worse than those trying to enter the EU.
This is not an American problem. It is a global problem. According to a Gallup survey a year ago, more than 700m adults around the world would like to move permanently to another country. Of that vast number, more than a fifth (21%) say their first choice would be to move to the US. The proportion who name an EU country as their dream destination is higher: 23%.
As I said, they have my sympathy. I love Scotland, the country where I happened to be born, but it was not where I wanted to spend my life. What I didn’t do was jump on a boat with my kids and try to bluff my way into America, intending to stay there even if my asylum claim were rejected.
“An undocumented alien is not a criminal,” Senator Kamala Harris argued last year. Sorry, but that’s wrong, just as it’s wrong for local authorities to defy the federal government by establishing “sanctuary cities”, and wrong for judges to subvert the system for processing asylum claims by making the temporary detention of applicant families impossible.
America has a broken immigration policy and it cannot be fixed by presidential orders. The constitution clearly states that this is a job for Congress. That’s one of the things a newly minted American citizen learns. It’s the native-born journalists, with their addiction to hyperbole and bad history, who seem to have forgotten it.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford